Sex, Death, and the Superego: Experiences in Psychoanalysis

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This book is a personal reappraisal of psychoanalytic theories in the light of clinical experience. The first part is about sexuality and begins where psychoanalysis began, with hysteria. The second part is about the ego and the super-ego, the relationship of which dominated Freud's writing from his middle period onwards. The last part is on narcissism and the narcissistic disorders, a major preoccupation of psychoanalysis in the second half of the twentieth century.

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CHAPTER ONE: Hysteria (I): Anna O.

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It is now more than a century since Freud published jointly with Josef Breuer Studies on Hysteria. He concluded that “in so far as one can speak of determining causes which lead to the acquisition of neuroses, their aetiology is to be looked for in sexual factors” (Freud, 1895d, p. 257). How, more than a hundred years on, do psychoanalytic practitioners regard the significance of sexuality in the neuroses? Their answers would be various but none would discount its importance. When Freud (1914d) reviewed this question himself twenty years after Studies on Hysteria, he returned to the first case that had prompted his theories. This was not one of his own but Breuer’s patient, Bertha Pappenheim, whom Freud decided to call “Anna O.” The more we know of what was not disclosed about that treatment, the clearer it is how much it influenced Freud in later years. The story as it was known to Freud is not fully told in Breuer’s case study of Anna O. What we know about it now makes better sense in terms of modern psychoanalysis. 1 want to emphasize that the details that are not included in Breuer’s account were known to Freud at the time and that he knew of the subsequent developments in Bertha Pappenheim’s life, as his wife was a friend of her family. At the time of their joint publication in 1895, thirteen years after her treatment, both Breuer and Freud knew that she was reasonably well and was living in Frankfurt.

 

CHAPTER TWO: Hysteria (II): Sabina Spielrein

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Sex, death, and psychoanalysis were the main preoccupations of Sabina Spielrein both as a patient and as an analyst, and she was the first to write a paper on the destructive or death instinct (Spielrein, 1912). She was also Jung’s first analytic case, and her treatment had much in common with that other “first patient”, Anna O. There are striking similarities in the stories of Sabina Spielrein and Bertha Pappenheim. Both were treated for severe hysteria as young women; both were sufficiently disturbed to be hospitalized; both were difficult and recalcitrant patients who were responsive only to the attentions of one doctor; both developed an intense erotic transference in the course of their treatment and became involved in dramatic transference-countertransference enactments with their doctors. The erotic enactment that involved Bertha Pappenheim and Josef Breuer was in symbolic and symptomatic form and remained unconscious to both parties. That which involved Sabina Spielrein and Jung was conscious and knowingly enacted. Both women were seen as pioneering collaborators in new discoveries by their therapists and developed a phantasy child by their therapists. Above all, they were both profoundly preoccupied with romantic death.

 

CHAPTER THREE: Hysteria (III): the erotic countertransference

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In 1912 Freud wrote to Jung, “I believe an article on ‘counter-transference’ is sorely needed” (McGuire, 1974, p. 475). The article was never written. So what would he have written then in 1912, and how might something on the same subject resemble it or differ from it now?

I have tried to construct what Freud would have written, drawing on his correspondence with Jung, Ferenczi, and Abraham, plus the few direct comments on countertransference in his writings and his indirect allusions to countertransference, in order to compare that with what 1 would say now on the same subject.

I am going to limit myself to the erotic countertransference, which Freud was exercised about in 1912. My ideas on this subject are based on my experience of analysis, on having had a number of analysts and psychotherapists as patients, on a large number of supervisions in many countries, and on acquaintance with a few countertransference misadventures and misdemeanours.

Countertransference then and now

In 1910 Freud suggested, somewhat tentatively, that his colleagues should analyse their countertransference. He wrote: “We have become aware of the ‘counter-transference’ which arises in him as a result of the patient’s influence on his unconscious feelings, and we are almost inclined to insist that he shall recognise this counter-transference in himself and overcome it” (1910d, pp. 144-145). In his paper, “Observations on Transference-Love”, he produced a stronger warning to analysts who found they were the object of erotic attraction:

 

CHAPTER FOUR: The female castration complex: Freud’s big mistake?

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In this chapter I suggest that the “castration” or “masculinity complex” of women that I have certainly met clinically occurs in a number of women with particular problems but is not part of the general female development. I believe that it was Freud’s two analyses of his daughter Anna that led him to conclude that this was a problem for women in general and to change his long-held theory of the Oedipus complex. From 1925 he saw this as only secondary to the castration complex in women:

She gives up her wish for a penis and puts in place of it a wish for a child: and with that purpose in view she takes her father as a love-object. Her mother becomes the object of her jealousy. The girl has turned into a little woman. If I am to credit a single analytic instance, this new situation can give rise to physical sensations which would have to be regarded as a premature awakening of the female genital apparatus. When the girl’s attachment to her father comes to grief later on and has to be abandoned, it may give place to an identification with him and the girl may thus return to her masculinity complex and perhaps remain fixated in it, [Freud, 1925j, p. 256]

 

CHAPTER FIVE: The unconscious in practice

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I have an impression that analytic practice has not always avoided error and over-estimations … partly owing to an exaggerated respect for the “mysterious unconscious”.

Sigmund Freud, 1923c [1922], p. 112

The term “the unconscious” has survived in psychoanalytic discourse despite its intended replacement by “the id” [das Es] in Freud’s structural model. I think that this is because “das Es” has been the least satisfactory concept in Freud’s tripartite model. Meianie Klein used the term in her early work, but her version of “the id” was, like Groddeck’s original “das Es”, an unconscious phantasy-ridden archaic self, more personalized than Freud’s “seething cauldron”. Later she acknowledged that she had used the term “id” loosely, and she went on to emphasize that “the unconscious” also consisted of “the unconscious ego and the unconscious super-ego” (Klein, 1958, pp. 243-244). She was clearly happier using the term “the unconscious” than “the id”.

From the outset, psychoanalytic writers, including Freud, have used the term “the unconscious” in two different senses: first, to denote an archaic, primordial region of mental life permanently inaccessible to awareness; second, to refer to actively impinging, unconscious mental activity that has immediate effects on the individual. The biggest change in Freud’s thinking on the unconscious was in the structural model when he ceased to regard consciousness (Cs.) and the ego as equatable; he wrote: “A part of the ego … undoubtedly is Lfcs.” (Freud, 1923b, p. 18). When he changed his mind and proposed that the ego was largely unconscious, he continued to regard it as the area of mental life that conferred the status of belief on ideas and placed them in space and time. He was adamant that the system Ucs., later called the id, knew nothing of belief, reality, contradiction, space, or time (Freud, 1933a, p. 74). In this chapter I am not addressing the concept of the “system unconscious” but only the unconscious in practice—that is, with mental activity that makes its presence felt while keeping its identity undisclosed.

 

CHAPTER SIX: The concept of the ego

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This chapter is based on a paper that I gave in Munich in June 2000 at a symposium organized by the German Psychoanalytical Association to review the concept of the ego in contemporary analysis in which I shared a platform with Robert Wallerstein. The organizers wished to compare how someone from the London post-Kleinian school and someone from American ego psychology conceptualized the ego today. To this end we were asked: do you use the concept of the ego now? If so, how do you conceptualize it? And how does your usage relate to Freud’s concept?

Robert Wallerstein gave an illuminating account of the development of the ego psychological school in the United States under the influence of Hartmann and Rapaport. He described his own position as a follower of this general psychological model of the mind together with others such as Gill and Roy Schafer, and he described how they moved away from it in the light of their psychoanalytic experience. The clinical models that have followed from that shift, he suggested, are more accommodating to the phenomena of psychoanalysis, more varied, and less constricting but less coherent and less comprehensive. Clinical dialogue was possible between us in this symposium with a fair measure of agreement, notably when we addressed the psychoanalytic material at a phenomenological rather than a metapsychological level.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN: Emancipation from the superego

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I heard it in a yellow wood.
If God is God he is not good.
If God is good he is not God.

Archibald Macleish, J,B.

In this and the next chapter I want to discuss the adverse aspects of the relationship of the ego and the superego within the individual: first, in this chapter, to talk of the ego’s struggle for emancipation from a domineering superego; then, in the next, to discuss the notion of an ego-destructive superego.

In his often quoted paper on mutative interpretation of 1934, James Strachey proposed that a therapeutic effect of analysis was a result of modification of the superego. His idea was based on Melanie Klein’s description of the cycle of projection and re-inrro-jection. He suggested that a severe superego can be modified within the transference by re-cycling of projections onto the analyst and their subsequent re-introjection modified by their sojourn in the analyst. The patient’s experience of the analyst on whom the projection had taken place would in time modify the superego. This idea underlies a great deal of analytic practice and has remained a useful rationale for therapeutic change. What I want to add to this theory is about the relationship of the ego to the superego and not simply its character. In a monarchic autocracy, the character of the monarch is likely to vary from one ruler to another, with considerable consequences for the subjects. Modifying the character of the autocrat is of great significance therefore, and so it is in the internal world. However, permanent improvement in the well-being of the citizens of the state depends on modifying the constitutional relationship between the crown and the commonwealth. Similarly, in the internal world the position of the ego in relation to the occupant of the seat of conscience is crucial. Even when the superego retains its adverse character, analysis can help the patient by changing the relationship between the ego and superego. In particular, it can help to wrest from the superego the function of judging both internal and external reality. This I think of as the ego’s emancipation. In the case of the destructive superego, which I discuss in the next chapter, the task of analysis would be to depose from the seat of conscience the hostile, alien, internal object that occupies it.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT: The ego-destructive superego

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“… can envy dwell In heav’nly breasts?”

Milton, Paradise Lost

In a paper in 1994, I discussed the inhibiting and distorting effect of publication anxiety; the paper described a fear of making private thoughts public (Britton, 1994b). In this chapter, I am concerned with the inhibition or prohibition that appears to operate at an earlier stage, stifling creativity close to its source within the internal world when the superego threatens, suppresses, and takes revenge on the ego’s creativity.

When I wrote about publication anxiety, I cited Charles Darwin as an example. He waited twenty years before reluctantly making public his theory of natural selection. Although he feared “crucifixion” when he thought of intimating some of his ideas to senior colleagues, he was not inhibited in thinking them or in pursuing his research. His inhibition operated at the point of making the private thoughts public, the hostility he feared was from the outside world, and the damage he dreaded doing was to his relationships to other people. He was, privately, free to think and to pursue his thoughts to their conclusions.

 

CHAPTER NINE: Humour and the superego

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Freud included humour with those aspects of everyday life to which he tried to bring psychoanalytic understanding: dreams, mistakes, day-dreams, literature, religion. In the early stages of psychoanalysis he wrote at length on comicality using his model of psychic energy (1905c); in 1927 he again wrote on humour but this time using his new structural theory. It provides an opportunity to see how much his theory has changed and developed. Its basis now is in object relations. The paper “Humour” (1927d) gives one of the clearest of his accounts of the relationship of the ego with the superego. As James Strachey put it in his introduction to that paper, “for the first time we find the super-ego presented in an amiable mood” (ibid., p. 160). As I have already said, I consider the “third position” of self observation in triangular space to be a function of the ego. Here Freud makes clear that the superego takes an amused and tolerant view of the immature ego—how does that fit with my suggestion? I propose that it does so by a joining up of the self-reflective ego with the observant superego, not, for once, in self-casrigarion but in amusement at witnessing the great discrepancy between the ego-ideal of aspiration and the inept ego of performance. The release of tension and flow of energy that follows from the union of ego and superego is expressed in laughter.

 

CHAPTER TEN: Narcissism and narcissistic disorders

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Not long ago I decided to review the concept of narcissism and the description of narcissistic disorders in the psychoanalytic literature to see how they matched up with my own clinical experience. There is probably no area of psychoanalytic literature more profuse than that on narcissism: it seemed endless as 1 worked my way through it. I have spared you most of it, quoting only that strictly relevant to my discussion, but behind it is a hinterland of unquoted papers. Not only is the literature on narcissism large, it is very muddling. As well as there being different developmental models, which complicates any discussion of narcissism, the confusion is further compounded because the word is used in different senses.

So before considering anything else, 1 would like to clarify my uses of the term narcissism. I decided that the term narcissism is used in the psychoanalytic literature in three ways.1 First, it describes narcissism as a phenomenon: an apparent lack of interest in others, combined with self-preoccupation. This can be seen in various psychological disorders and also in everyday life. Second, it is used to describe an imputed force or innate tendency within the personality that opposes relationships outside the self. Third, it is used to designate a specific group of personality dysfunctional cases called the narcissistic disorders. In this chapter I discuss the second and third of these three uses of the term. The questions I try to address are: what part does narcissism, as a force, play in these narcissistic disorders, and, is there a difference between libidinal and destructive narcissism?

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN: Narcissistic problems in sharing space

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As Freud demonstrated, it is our psychic reality that makes us neurotic, and we easily confuse it with material reality; nowhere is this more so than in our phantasy-rich perception of physical space. It is easiest to see how mental space is experienced as physical space when it is at its most problematic. Two simple examples: a woman alone in her own large apartment feels she is suffocating; it is full of unwelcome thoughts and unbidden memories. She opens the window; she opens the door; she moves from room to room; she moves the furniture; finally, she takes flight from her apartment and walks the street. This happens to her every day. A man standing at a railway station begins to see ail the objects on the platform receding from him. He feels smaller, the distances greater, and the emptiness around him larger; the platform seems endlessly long and his legs short and weak. His morbid thoughts preceding this alarming experience had been of his isolation in life, his powerlessness to change things, and his fear of not being able to reach or contact anyone. We live and move in physical space, yet it is also psychic space; its perceived shape and size is an extension of our state of mind.

 

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